I have a terrible cold,
And everyone knows how terrible colds
Alter the whole system of the universe
Set us against life…
—Fernando Pessoa, Portuguese poet
Who can refuse to live his own life?
—Anna Akhmatova, Russian poet
At first, I am not sure where I am. I am half-awake, but when you are half-awake, you don’t realise it also means you are half-asleep. I am hearing a bird sound outside that in my head always belongs to a beach in Maine.
Maine. David Foster Wallace going to its annual lobster festival and writing his essay, Consider the lobster.
Maine. Elizabeth Hardwick visiting Mary McCarthy’s house there and finding Hannah Arendt lying on a sofa, arms behind her back, staring at the ceiling.
Hardwick (to McCarthy): What is she doing?
McCarthy: She is thinking.
I am not in Maine; I am at my house in Gurugram.
But the new bird sound is not the only thing that has precipitated this early-morning illusion of being in Maine. The usual neighbourhood noises that reach my ears at this time are missing. I can hear no Bengali chatter between car cleaners and house helps. There is no hurried opening, one after another, of automatic car door locks. The neighbour repeatedly shouting at her five-year-old daughter that she will miss the school bus if she does not hasten up, has disappeared as well. There is only the bird sound.
And then I hear the siren of a police car and realise it is the first day of the 21-day lockdown.
I step out in the balcony. There is no one on the street. A tree on the pavement, chopped ruthlessly by the builder’s people to save a high-tension electric line above, is sprouting little green leaves. I close my eyes and imagine peacocks and then alligators appearing on the road.
It has been five days since I stepped out of home. As Italy fell, and quarantine centres opened up here, we were still going out. But by this time, we had begun to wash hands in a particular way; also, hand sanitisers had become the new passion fruit.
Every evening, or almost every evening, some of us went to a market nearby. The Galleria market is one of those markets that are becoming rare in the city; it has open spaces and a fountain in the middle of it. There are cafés, a pub running songs one is familiar with, a bookshop, and a departmental store where you can buy things that you really want to consume, and not because everyone around you is buying them.
There are also more chances that the faces of people who walk by you are already known to you. Maybe I am exaggerating, but sometimes it feels like you are part of some community that will really care if you go missing. There is the kind manager at the Bahrisons bookstore; on the first floor, the hairdresser, always taking a smoking break between clients; the old, stylish man who was a government employee and is now a successful model, saunters slowly in his torn jeans; the dove-eyed saleswoman at the Forest Essentials store is feeding stray dogs.
We would buy our coffee and sit on one of the benches by the fountain. I often think about what this market means to me. The counter question is: what does Christmas time do to a man in snowy New York? There is a poem by Kim Addonizio—To the woman crying uncontrollably in the next stall—that a writer friend based in New York sent out once in her newsletter. The last line of the poem reads: ‘Joy is coming.’ Sitting at Galleria, watching people go about their lives, it always felt to me that I was part of an optimism carnival in continuum—a gateway to maybe not joy, but to something like: okay, we will be fine, let us have coffee and make plans for the future, get a little stationery, buy a book, and start working from tomorrow.
The other way of looking at it is through the nicest moment of a 1970s Hindi film: a doctor appears in a grim hospital ward. He is tired, but there is also a spring in his step. He removes his mask and says: “He” will be alright. There are happy gasps all over.
Who is “He”? “He” is you, and I, and everyone else around us.
Many years ago, on a balmy afternoon, a man I knew brought his mother along to Galleria. I knew she suffered from amnesia. She had a lily pinned to her hair. She looked at me and smiled the brightest-ever smile. I knew then that she had also heard the invisible but audible saxophone that always conveyed to us that the centre will somehow hold.
ONE DAY, we go to Galleria and are told that a person in an apartment nearby has tested positive. I buy a gift for a friend whose birthday party I have to attend in the evening. I think of buying coffee, but I can hear the saxophone only after a lot of strain. There is a certain acerbity in the air. Most people are in masks, and many of them are buying hand sanitisers in bulk from five chemists who soon exhaust their supplies. The butcher, who runs a side business of selling shawarmas, is sitting alone outside his shop; he has no patrons today.
As I buy some ink cartridges from the stationery shop, I realise people are now keeping distance from each other. Two friends come and instead of shaking hands bring together their right foot, as we saw people doing in videos that appeared funny till only a few hours earlier.
Inside me, there is a churning feeling that the Golden Age of Alright will be over soon. I am reminded of a line in Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, where she talks about the ‘disdainful knowledge of how most loyalties and loves shatter in the panic produced by epidemic disease.’
That evening, as we clink our glasses at the friend’s house, the Prime Minister appears on television. On March 24th, he says, we must observe complete lockdown. We open another bottle of wine. And then another. And another.
This, I know, will be my last Alright for a long time. The doctor will appear, but we are no longer sure about what message he will bring.
IN 1348, a bubonic plague someone named the Black Death hit Europe with a devastating effect. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, dealing with the effects of the epidemic on his city, Florence, seven women decide to leave the city and go to their country estates. They take three men along, and for ten days the ten friends tell ten stories every day (that become Decameron). They are in, as the writer Joan Acocella puts it, the locus amoenus, or “pleasant place”.
The modern man tends to spend all his life looking for this pleasant place. Remember how some of us in Delhi ran away to the hills (or dreamt of it) as the pollution became unbearable for few weeks in winter. In the hills, when restlessness hit men, they came to the city. Some among us escaped to the West; some from the West, like Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love, took refuge in our ashrams.
But, now, where does one go? In our collective suffering and neurosis, we have become one. There is no pleasant place left anymore. The historian Keith Thomas speaks somewhere about the notion in the plague-ridden England of 16th and 17th century that the happy man would not get the plague. The biggest tragedy is we were in March when we were forced to stay inside. Some of us were not even looking for a king-size portion of happiness but the lowest common denominator of it. Have coffee. The doctor comes. You are Alright. You hear the saxophone. The centre will somehow hold.
I always have had a vivid imagination of March. It is when cotton floated in the air and people put fresh coats of paint on their walls and took short walks after dinner, and young lovers ate from the same cup of ice-cream and made plans of opening up joint bank accounts. I imagined them happy (king-size happy), and in love, listening to Dooley Wilson’s It Had to Be You over and over again, with Sunday magazines and empty teacups and decanters with lemon-infused water and table calendars with red circles over extended weekends. I imagined a certain permanency of things.
Things are so impermanent. Stepping outside is an act of masochism. This is a time to take solace in Boris Pasternak’s line: ‘To live a life is not to cross a field.’ We are forced to consider our living rooms as locus amoenus. Young lovers cannot buy ice-cream; the banks are closed. Even short walks after dinner are frowned at by the RWAs.
IN THE INITIAL days, we just read whatever is available on the internet. The virus sticks to clothes. The virus can survive on steel, glass and cardboard. The virus is airborne. We have many questions, but no certainty about answers. Is it better to wear a mask or not wear it? Is it okay to run or not? Some friends are checking fever twice a day. They want to order a little food from outside, but then decide against it.
We store essential items. But as the stocks began to dwindle, we wonder if we have stored enough. The neighbourhood grocer has finished his stock of several items you think you should have more of. Things are fast flying off shelves. There are no Maggi noodles, or pasta, or poha, and there is no liquid soap. The home delivery systems have collapsed. Even Jeff Bezos is crouching.
Many are going through the predicament of spending time with oneself. You make video calls to friends. You share jokes and memes on the virus. You try your hand at cooking. You read something. You treat Netflix as a barbiturate. You come out and beat steel plates, more to feel a sense of community than for boosting the morale of health workers. But in the end, at some point, you have to look inwards. And inside, for many of us, there is a bereavement—for what exactly, that we will take time to figure out.
Remember how most of us have got into this habit of saying: Oh, I don’t have time. And now, suddenly, there is all the time in the world. But it is forcing us to look at the bunions of our minds. Only that we do not want to acknowledge that they exist.
We are craving for normalcy to return. But, because the sum total of all the articles that we are sharing with each other points at the same thing, we say the same thing to each other: the world will not be the same again. So, we long for transportation to the locus amoenus of the past. I am craving for cold beer and strips of fried bacon that I once saw a runner filling her pockets with.
In the evening, terraces are full of people, walking from one end to another. After five days, I am now listening to too many varieties of music streaming in from all over my neighbourhood. It is like I have come to a place where people are locked in but pretending that they are in Woodstock. On Instagram, Patti Smith says she misses drinking coffee in a café.
The lockdown has now entered its second week. Many I know have stopped following updates about the virus. A day before, I sent a rather encouraging report to my friends in which a doctor says we are panicking more than required and that it is just that the virus is a virus with public relations.
I am on the terrace now, finishing today’s 10,000 steps. Today, I saw the bird that gave me the illusion of being in Maine. I have never seen it before. The tree on the pavement has sprouted several clusters of green leaves now. I am hoping that the Bengali chatter returns, and the neighbour’s kid goes to school on time.
I hope I can eat that bacon without washing my hands. I hope I hear the saxophone.
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